There’s nearly a million people and their families in this country living with one of the 200 variants of dementia who have been mostly ignored by theatre makers.
There would an outcry if a similarly sized group of people were being marginalised in that way, but Frances Poet’s bittersweet work tracing one woman’s dementia journey goes someway to addressing that in an unflinching, yet hopeful, new work that never sugar-coats what is happening to Maggie, but not for one second loses sight of her as a person.
Maggie has been married to Gordon for over forty years and they have always retained their love of cheesy singalongs to their favourite hit songs that have been curtailed by his recent stroke, but as this feisty woman nurses him back to health, she is trying to hide something big from everyone around her. It’s no spoiler to reveal the former catering manager has been told she has Alzheimer’s, drowning in a blizzard of post-it notes dotted all over the set helping her hold onto her memory and sanity.
But it isn’t working, and it comes out at a disastrous birthday dinner for her only son Michael and his Harry Potter obsessed new girlfriend Claire as his strong, straight talking mum gets hopelessly confused. There is a quite brilliant link to the dementors in Rowling’s novels, which really captures what a serious brain condition like Alzheimer’s does to someone’s mind and sense of self by destroying memories of things they hold dear.
The second half on Frances O’Connor’s stark set specifically designed to make the space dementia friendly is Maggie coming to terms with how she can live a full life with dementia and retain her dignity. Meanwhile, her family and lifelong best friend Jo flounder their way through to overcome their own fears and ignorance finally reaching an understanding that it is still Maggie but is inexorably becoming a different version.
Poet has talked at length to the Playhouse’s Peer Support Group that offers a creative space for people living with dementia. It shows as Poet subtly takes the audience through the various symptoms that typify dementia – often in a humorous way as like everything in life it’s not all doom and gloom – that really opens our eyes to a world we all hope never to inhabit.
Maggie’s condition offers her foggy and sunny days as Poet weaves in their familiar songs to reflect where this loving working-class couple are at in their journey, but there’s always love and joy in their daft singing and dancing much to their son’s constant embarrassment.
Eithne Browne offers an often raw, but always honest, Maggie that should put her in contention for all the acting awards going. All those years in Brookside are brought into play as she deftly switches from a terrified Maggie battling the holes in her memory to find the strong woman she always was, and always will be somewhere deep inside.
Matching her every step of the way is Tony Timberlake as gentle soul Gordon trying to keep a brave face on things as the love of his life starts to slip away from him. It would be easy to play him as just angry or hapless, but in another stellar performance Timberlake offers a decent but conflicted man trying to do the right thing without a roadmap.
Michael is very much his mother’s son stubbornly trying to avoid the reality of what is happening to his mum, but Mark Holgate opens out a slightly one-dimensional man into something real with strong support from Shireen Farkhoy as his girlfriend, who is about the only person to accept Maggie for who she is.
It would be easy to make this subject a misery fest, but instead Poet and a totally invested cast offer us a warm, hopeful and yet utterly authentic window into a world that for millions is their daily experience. It is a story that is told honestly, and without melodrama, but Maggie May understands that despite everything our collective memory will always be at the core of what makes us what we are.
Maggie May is in the Courtyard at Leeds Playhouse until 21st May and to book 0113 213 7700 or www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk It then tours to Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch from 24th – 28th May and Leicester Curve 7th – 11th June.
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 16th May 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★